Penny Toler, whose numerous claims to fame include being the first woman in the WNBA to score a basket and the fastest player to go from the court to the boardroom, catches up with Andy about her legendary career and current projects.
Toler grew up in Washington, D.C. with three brothers and credits their competitive edge with helping her get into basketball.
“What started out as just them needing another person to play two-on-two gave me a career that I can only dream of,” Toler said. “Growing up, I didn’t have the WNBA to look up to. I loved Isiah Thomas because he had mad handles. On the east coast, if you had mad handles, you were always picked to play.”
Toler took her basketball talent to the west coast at San Diego State and Long Beach State before traveling to Italy, Greece, and Israel to play competitively for ten years. When asked about the level of women’s basketball in Italy, she played for Montecchio and Pescara, Toler replied:
“The level of play was high. This is what was so funny to Americans. We were the best there was when I was there. They hired us for our play, but they also hired us for their players to emulate and how we played, how we practiced, how hard we went, but the quality of the play was high there.”
“Then, there was no women’s league at home for us to continue our careers…the only way to continue the sports you love was by going overseas…you would be like, how can the greatest country in the world not provide a women’s league?”
When she returned to the U.S., Toler became an inaugural player allocated to the Los Angeles Sparks in the newly-formed WNBA. She scored the first basket during the league’s first game on June 21, 1997, at the Great Western Forum, also the former home of the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I remember the jumper, crossing legs, and jumping on the baseline. It was funny because, after the game, there were so many nerves. It took us a minute to score that first bucket…I didn’t realize it to be honest with you. I didn’t appreciate it until years later that it was the first,” Toler said.
After her three years with the Sparks, Toler continued making history. In 2006 her number 11 Sparks jersey was the first female athlete’s jersey to be retired at STAPLES Center. Toler became the General Manager of the Sparks in 1999 and even served as interim coach in 2014.
“I can look back at those first 10 years that the Sparks were owned by the Lakers. Those were the best 10 years of my career because while other people had to Google information, I could literally walk across the parking lot with the best in the world who were doing it at the time and get the best advice. You get the best advice ever from people that were legendary, creating championships and making memories,” Toler said.
In 2001, the Sparks won their first championship, the same year the Lakers won what would be the second victory in a threepeat. Toler was also a member of the USA Basketball Women’s Competition Committee, where she assisted in the selection of four gold medal-winning teams and in the selection of the 2020 Olympic Team. She spent time on the WNBA Labor Relations Committee, the group that negotiated the WNBA new 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement.
“I still understood the importance of players having the money to be placed in the best position in order for this league to succeed. We have hopes that they will stay home to continue to grow the league because it still needs growing,” Toler said.
In addition to her work with the WNBA, Toler is a professional speaker and is currently working with a friend to launch an anti-bullying app called The Bullying Buddy which supports the receiver, watcher, bully, teachers, policymakers, and parents by extending education, reporting tools, alerts, and a locator.
“It’s an app you download on your phone and can report bullying in real-time. The reality of it is that you will be able to report bullying on all facets…it’s about saving lives.”
Hear Toler’s memories of Kobe Bryant, details about her international career, and her upcoming memoir.
Listen to the full Legends Of Sport podcast. Watch the video of the podcast on the @legendsofsport YouTube channel.